Biden’s Kyiv trip sends a signal
The surprise visit of the US president is a key symbolic moment ahead of a possible escalation in the war this spring
United States (US) President Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv this week has shown that while there may be fatigue in some political pockets in Washington DC with the protracted conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the latter’s most important ally in the war continues to remain steadfast in its support. The timing of the trip is important, as was its secrecy. For the first time, an American president travelled to a country at war where the US does not control critical infrastructure, have a military presence or control over the airspace. But as US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters, the trip was intended to send a “clear, unmistakeable message” that American support for Ukraine was enduring and so was the unity of the western alliance in the face of recent Russian aggression. This is especially important given the context — after a series of reverses on the battlefield in the autumn and winter, Moscow has clawed back some advantage by doubling down on firepower and boots on the ground in a grinding battle of attrition in recent weeks. Russia and its mercenary groups still control nearly a fifth of Ukraine and some reports have suggested that it will intensify its war efforts later this month, marking the first anniversary of the military offensive.
In a speech on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin also signalled as much, attempting to cast the revanchist conflict as an existential war for Russia with the West, and blaming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for fanning the flames of the conflict and even walking out of a key nuclear treaty. In his nearly two hour long speech, Mr Putin said that Russia was not against the people of Ukraine and repeatedly justified the annexation of four provinces in the Donbas region last year. The defiant speech may signal that any attempts at pausing the war or negotiating a ceasefire will not be easy at this moment — Russia continues to be irresponsible and belligerent and Ukraine has not shown any inclination towards giving up its claims on the annexed regions.
How the war will evolve in its second year is anyone’s guess. In terms of optics and symbolism, Mr Biden has delivered the strongest possible signal of support. But to sustain a possible Russian onslaught on the battlefield, Kyiv has also asked for increased munitions, strategic support, new military equipment and technology, including long-range missiles and fighter jets. How the West responds to these demands and whether it fulfils them will determine the course of the war in 2023.